Anna Quindlen has been a newspaper and magazine (Newsweek) columnist chronicling what life is like for a working woman, informed citizen, daughter, friend, wife and mom. She is also a novelist, having written stories about a victim of domestic violence (“Black and Blue”), and a young adult facing her mother’s imminent death (“One True Thing”).
Her latest novel, “Still Life With Bread Crumbs,” takes us along on Rebecca Winter’s journey. Rebecca is a 60-year-old woman, long divorced from her pretentious professor ex-husband; mother to Ben, who is struggling to find work in film production; and a photographer of some fame, her iconic work being the title of this thoughtful novel.
Rebecca’s photo became a feminist touchstone. It was a photo of the aftermath of a dinner party: dirty dishes and glasses stacked in the kitchen, a dish towel burned at one edge from the stove. It struck a chord with women everywhere, and was reproduced on magnets, posters and T-shirts.
Rebecca became a famous photographer, working steadily for years. But now she is 60, and her fame has waned, along with the money. She can no longer afford her beautiful apartment overlooking Central Park and her mother is in a nursing home and needs financial assistance, as does her son Ben.
If she rents out her apartment for a year, her money situation could improve. She finds a small remote cabin upstate and figures if she rents that for a year, perhaps she could find inspiration and save enough to get out of her financial hole.
But the place is not what she had hoped. It is very isolated and rustic (read: rundown), and when she hears a raccoon in the attic, the man who comes to trap the animal is a handsome, younger man, Jim Bates, who is attracted to her.
This book is not just a love story, though watching Jim and Rebecca dance around each other is intriguing. Women of a certain age will understand Rebecca’s story. She is invisible to most people, men especially, so Jim’s interest in her throws her.
Jim needs a photographer to work on a project taking photos of eagles that have been tagged, and Rebecca gratefully takes on the task. They spend hours together, sitting quietly and getting to know each other, even though both have put up walls.
She becomes friendly with Sarah, a young woman who owns a tea parlor in town, and with Tad, a real clown who fancies himself the town matchmaker, but other than that, Rebecca keeps to herself. One day a dog shows up at her doorstep, and Rebecca takes him in. Anyone who has a dog can appreciate their growing love for each other.
She worries about her parents, her mother who wasn’t very maternal, and her jovial father, who now lives in an apartment near her mother’s nursing home with a caregiver of his own. She wonders how she will make enough money to support all of them.
While wandering through the snowy woods one day, Rebecca finds a small wooden cross with a photo of a woman and a young girl leaning against it. She finds another with a small trophy at the bottom of the cross.
These interest Rebecca and she photographs them. But when she returns, the crosses are gone. What do these crosses mean and why do they disappear? Rebecca is curious.
The setting of this novel is upstate New York, and Quindlen sets a vivid portrait of this snowy, remote place. Perhaps because this winter has been so cold and snowy, the scene where Rebecca finds herself completely snowed in will resonate a bit too much with those of us who have been stuck inside.
One thing I like about Quindlen’s novels is their beautiful language, and frequently I have to go back to re-read her thought-provoking sentences, like this one: “Once again she had the odd sense that she had been missing something, seeing the world flat when everything was rounded.”
Quindlen also keeps the reader on her toes, increasing your vocabulary by using words that send you to the dictionary — davening, tendentious, epicene. I like a writer who challenges us a little, makes us work a bit.
“Still Life With Bread Crumbs” has a lot to say about art, getting older, marriage (“most of it is in the mundane middle part”), being a daughter and a mom, and opening yourself up to love and life. Rebecca’s journey is an interesting one, one that many of us can appreciate and understand.